Her regular jumpsuit on under a new hooded painter’s suit, Kimber Dameron set off to help transfer her first COVID-19 patient.
The flight paramedic’s skin was almost completely covered from head to toe, besides her eyes, where she could still see through goggles.
Soon enough, Dameron was cramped inside the helicopter, leaned over an older man who was sick from a new infectious disease that began sweeping the country last spring, and trying to keep him comforted.
“Where I sit in the helicopter, his head is right at my knees,” Dameron said. “I just kept telling him to make eye contact and to squeeze my hands.”
It’s been a strange, stressful year for air medics in eastern Idaho, with pandemic challenges adding a new burden to their ordinary tasks of patient transport and wilderness rescue.
When Dameron began working in emergency medical services two decades ago, it was her goal to take care of sick people. For the last 12 years, Dameron has been a flight paramedic with Air Idaho Rescue, ferrying critical patients from outlying hospitals to larger facilities and stabilizing patients from trips deep in the backcountry and national parks in Idaho and Wyoming.
But last year threw new challenges to her and many other EMS workers: forming bonds with patients through dense suits that made them look like something out of a sci-fi movie; keeping whatever they’d need for a call outside their new protective suits; and following the pace of a year that felt impossible to get ahead of.
COVID-19 was a strain on the system, but the coronavirus wasn’t the only reason EMS demand was up. An influx of recreation left more excursionists injured, making last year’s summer trauma season unusually busy.
This past year trauma calls were up by a third for the eastern Idaho air medivac sites, said flight paramedic Dallen Farmer, who works with Dameron.
The same forces have also strained traditional EMS systems.
Eastern Idaho’s largest EMS system, in Idaho Falls, also saw a big jump in calls last year. Back in November, as coronavirus infections were rising at an unrelenting pace, Fire Chief Duane Nelson warned that the system was on a ”razor’s edge.”
“We need something to happen,” Nelson told regional health officials. “We cannot maintain a level of service that this community has been accustomed to, and we have had the pleasure to deliver, without something significant changing.”
Planning during that time for virtually anyone running health care systems in eastern Idaho was tough. At times for some rural hospitals, without ICU beds or the resources to care for COVID-19 patients whose health was rapidly declining, transferring patients to hospitals was an hour-by-hour affair.
Some people had COVID-19 but never knew it. To be safe, that means you have to act like everyone has it.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Farmer felt a “fear of the unknown.”
The future wasn’t clear. But all signs pointed in the wrong direction for eastern Idaho.
Coronavirus cases were surging. Death tallies grew. And hospital capacity shrunk.
“Everybody’s crossing their fingers and saying their prayers, just hoping that these numbers keep going down,” he recalled recently. “... In that regard, we’re just like anybody else. It’s nerve-wracking.”
Hospitals inched closer to their limits over that month. Infections began dropping around Christmas, relieving them over the coming months.
The numbers were more than digits to Farmer and other paramedics and nurses.
“When I look back a year ago from now, it kind of felt like everybody was standing on the edge of a cliff, and somebody was just waiting to push me,” Farmer said. “And that never happened for me. We were very, very busy. But there wasn’t — I don’t feel like it was beyond our control.”